Boney M and BB guns in Bremerhaven

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Boney M and BB guns in Bremerhaven

In his book Cycling Back to Happiness, English journalist Bernie Friend covers 6,000 kilometres of northern Europe on a bicycle in a bid to overcome his hypochondria. Here, in the first of three excerpts, pitching up in the northern German coastal town of Bremerhaven proves to be an odd experience.


Bremerhaven had ’new town’ stamped all over it after losing most of its buildings in wartime bombing blasts. Most of the Weser harbour had been spared by the Allies, wanting to utilise this landing point once the fighting had ceased. And that strategic decision has helped the city thrive as a bustling centre of sea trade, shipping more than 3.5 million containers every year and exporting 1.4 million cars.

But one thing they certainly didn’t get the hang of was architecture. I could have been tripping on recycled memories of home, brought on by Rhys’ arrival, after parking up in the shopping square. It was a carbon-copy of Basildon High Street. But I wasn’t hallucinating. Some other visionary had got away with pushing such an uninspiring mish-mash of concrete slabs, token water features and rubbish shops through the planning process. Add a giant cemetery of dull faded stone apartment blocks around the perimeter (there wasn’t a house in sight) and you’ve just nudged Milton Keynes a step closer to residential paradise. Well at least they’ve got concrete cows.

One thing Bremerhaven High Street did have however was a camping shop which didn’t sell tents or sleeping bags. But you could purchase a bullet-proof jacket with COMBAT printed on the front in huge white letters, meaty jagged knives which would make Crocodile Dundee wince and a selection of BB guns. I was tempted to get kitted up for the next roadside dog attack. I’d show those pesky mutts who was boss.

After being identified as English we were ordered to produce all of ‘our papers’ by the elderly cardigan-wearing hostel receptionist, whose previous job was bellboy at Colditz. Placing a loving arm around Rhys and demanding a ‘room for two’ probably didn’t help. He obviously thought we were gay and, looking at my nose, probably Jewish into the bargain. Ejecting our baggage we finally escaped the white pimply corridors and security buzzer partition doors of the hostel, which had all the ambience and decorative charm of a prison wing.

Free at last, we whizzed through the streets on packless bikes like the BMX Bandits. It was Friday night in Bremerhaven and time to seal our unification deal with a few beverages. The contract of comradeship was drunk in a peculiar bar opposite a fishermen-flanked statue of the city’s 17th-century political founder Johann Smidt.

Three-pronged street lamps sprouted out of tables and cardboard pop-up figures screamed at the open windows of paper houses burning bright orange across the back wall. It could have been the film model of Rainbow’s opening titles, except ‘up above the streets and houses bombs were dropping from on high’.

Boney M were playing in the background and a limp string puppet of Adolf Hitler wearing Bavarian green lederhosen hung above the beer pump. With his Nazi saluting hand forced down by his side the tyrant was about as menacing as John Inman.

The pub was run by a middle-aged couple who must have cashed in their pensions early and got out of the porn trade. The talkative artist formerly known as Candy had a cheeky expression and wore sunglasses on top of thick black hair which fell down above a finely shaped posterior.

She was in good nick for her age, which was more than could be said for playmate Dirk, who possibly poured the slowest and headiest beer in northern Europe. He never said a word all night. Leaning with one arm against the bar, with legs crossed at the bottom, he was failing miserably in an attempt to come over all mean and moody. It had something to do with the black Primark suit jacket and trousers, Bundesliga mullet and gingery brown stubble. ‘He likes the blues,’ whispered Candy. You don’t say!

It was getting on for 10pm and there were only a handful of punters in the Twin Peaks saloon, mostly just staring into space as if on some sort of medication. Rhys randomly started moaning about a scab on his hand, which attracted the gaze of a Lurch like individual on the next stool, supping a misty brown liquid in a large laboratory test tube glass. He watched Rhys picking away without once batting an eyelid, before cranking his neck round with a jerk to meet my stare and uttered: ‘Life is so strange.’ With a crazed roll of the eyes and maniacal smile he turned back the other way in creepy slow motion. Rhys didn’t know whether to laugh or make a lightning bolt out of the bar, while Candy was making small talk about Bremerhaven’s booming Fish Finger empire. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome.

'Cycling Back to Happiness' (ISBN 9781906206710) is published by Pen Press and is available to buy and order in all book stores across Europe. For the rest of the world visit or contact [email protected].


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